I grew up on the Ohio River. I swam in it, drove a boat in it, tossed rocks in it, and watched it from a bench on the riverbank at Rising Sun. It has always been at the front door of my community.
The river is also a drinking water source for about 5 million people, and serves many commercial and recreational uses. I remember the river as a being very dirty and unsafe and even today only about a third of the river is considered safe for swimming due to infection-caused bacteria.
However, the Ohio River made a comeback after new federal environmental standards took hold in the 1970’s. It is critical to the local economy and the quality of life in southeastern Indiana.
Today this vital national asset is again under attack. Two major events are again threatening the vitality and water quality of this mighty river.
First, the Trump Administration has proposed eliminating key pollution control standards and withdraw Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) from the responsibility of ensuring consistent water quality throughout the Ohio River basin. ORSANCO currently sets pollution standards for industrial and municipal water discharges into the 981-mile-long river.
Instead, states would only need to comply with the minimum requirements of the federal Clean Water Act. For a river that borders several states lime the Ohio, the regulations would in essence be defined by the State that has the least stringent environmental standard.
This roll back of environmental regulations would meet the desires of President Trump, who has called for states to play a larger role in setting environmental policy. Interestingly, industries that dump waste in the river support the proposal while drinking water providers oppose the change.
“ORSANCO commissioners walking away from their crucial oversight role will set the stage for a ‘race to the bottom’ in controlling pollution in the Ohio River,” said Madeline Fleisher, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center,
“We can’t afford to lose the one watchdog in charge of making sure the entire Ohio River is safe and clean for more than four million people who rely on it for their drinking water.”
Second, and much closer to home, it came to light this past week that there is a proposal to allow "fly ash" from power plants in Aberdeen and Manchester Ohio to be dumped in the old landfills at the closed AEP site in Lawrenceburg along the river.
There are currently two landfills at the site that have fly ash in them and the new imported fly ash would be dumped in the existing ponds.
I have vocally supported the development of a new Port in Southeastern Indiana from the beginning and have attended many presentations on the issue. This plan to import fly ash was never publicly discussed at any of the presentations that I attended by the company that was contracted to clean up the old AEP site. St. Louis-based brownfield redeveloper Commercial Development Company, Inc. has been working to remediate and repurpose the 725-acre power plant property along the Ohio River since 2016.
When coal is burned, it leaves behind fly ash that is filled with contaminants such as arsenic, chromium and boron that can potentially leach into nearby groundwater and waterways. That ash is stored in massive pits, some of which are unlined and provide no barrier between the toxic waste and whatever else it may come into contact with. Indiana has a lot of these pits — roughly 85 of them, which is more than any other state.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities rule. In plain English, that's basically new regulations for coal ash storage. The EPA leaves it up to the states to write a plan enforcing those rules. In Indiana, that job fell to the Department of Environmental Management, or IDEM.
The agency held a public hearing in 2016 on the state's proposed plans to deal with coal ash at Indiana's 84 storage ponds. Indiana received conditional approval for their plan. They intend to complete a process to revise their CCR regulations to be consistent with the federal minimum CCR requirements by December of 2018. In essence, the State is coming up with a plan as they go along with proposals like those for the Lawrenceburg site.
The existing ponds at the AEP site have always required some type of remediation to be safe. A “cap in place” plan will probably seal the pits for eternity but there must also be a impenetrable barrier between the ash and the aquifers that adjoin the river. In 2014, a failure in an ash pit pond by Duke Energy caused a massive spill of coal ash wastewater into a 70-mile stretch of the Dan River in North Carolina. The toxic waste endangered people, fish and the river for decades to come.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management will make a ruling soon on whether or not material can in from outside sites and be dumped in Lawrenceburg but the incident gives rise to the larger issue. Why are we in such a hurry to relax our nation's environmental regulations?
I like many others have been guilty of taking a clean Ohio River and other environmental gains for granted. We forget that these gains did not occur by chance but resulted from strong environmental regulations and holding polluters accountable if they violated the law.
In less than a year, the Trump administration has moved to undo, delay, or otherwise block more than 30 rules issued by the Obama EPA, a far larger number than in any prior administration. These rules addressed serious threats to health and the environment, such as mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, contamination of rivers and streams from leaking coal ash impoundments and water pollution. Some of the very issues that are facing southeastern Indiana today may have been solved by leaving the regulations in place.
Our environment is far from perfect, but we must all work to avoid the rampant environmental degradation that is endangering the health and well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the globe. We only have one planet and one Ohio River.